You Are Not Alone — A few thoughts for International Mental Health Day by Nasri Atallah

I'm a fan of any initiative to reduce the stigma around talking about and seeking help for mental health issues. So I thought I’d share some stats, and some personal experience.

According to a survey by the Mental Health Foundation, 65% of people say that they have experienced a mental health problem. More than 40% say they have experienced depression and over 25% say they have experienced panic attacks.

These are all UK figures, I imagine they vary from country to country, but the basic thing to keep in mind is that if you’re feeling anxious or depressed — or dealing with other forms of mental health issues — you are most definitely not alone. You’re probably not the only one with these issues in the room you're sitting in right now.

I’ve been in little cycles of psychoanalytic therapy in the past (which didn’t really do it for me, and no two cases are the same, so it might work for you. Doing research on this helps a lot), but most recently I went through a cycle of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

What triggered the need to go into therapy earlier this year? Well I was having regular and sustained panic attacks on the Tube and in crowded places, something that has never happened to me before. Anxiety is a normal part of the human experience, and it can even be useful. But when anxiety starts to dictate behaviour, thinking and decisions then it’s time to look for help. So when I started retreating into my home and avoiding places I normally love, I knew it was time to do something.

Anxiety is a combination of thoughts, feelings, physical symptoms and behaviours. So it’s really something you want to deal with as soon as you can. And don’t think your case is silly. I thought mine was silly. Most of my anxiety, believe it or not, was pretty much directly related to Brexit and Trump. Looking back at my emails, I realize I reached out to my local mental health service in November, right after the election. I suddenly became overwhelmingly concerned with my own well-being, that of my family, that of the world at large. I became convinced everyone around me in the world was a raging racist who wanted me dead. My logical mind knew that was not the case, but it couldn’t do anything about the ball holding my chest hostage, the ringing in my ears or the tremor in my hands. I felt stupid walking into a doctor's office and telling them I was scared of Donald Trump and his supporters while I lived in a leafy bit of Camden.

But he walked me through it, and told me to never second-guess my anxiety. Every single mental health issue is important, because it is important to YOU. Never ever think what you’re feeling is silly or undeserving of attention.

I’m lucky enough to live in the UK, so I got great support on the NHS, and elected to go to a group therapy session once a week for six weeks rather than have one-on-ones with a doctor. Something about the group attracted me, the fact that there would be a heightened level of empathy and a shared vulnerability. And CBT is a great technique. Within no time I had tools to manage my anxiety. And that’s an important thing to keep in mind. It never goes away, it is something you manage.

At the beginning of the 6 weeks we were asked to write our biggest fear about the therapy on a piece of paper, put it in an envelope and hand it to our counsellors. They’d give it back to us six weeks later. When I got my piece of paper back, I opened the envelope having forgotten what I'd written down.

I looked down at the Post-It it said: “I hope getting better doesn’t change who I am”.

It felt like it had been written by someone else. “What a silly thing to be scared about” I thought to myself. But I smiled about it, happy about how far I’d come in such a short time.

I'm happy to chat with anyone going through feelings of anxiety and happy to share some of the documents I have from the CBT sessions if someone is curious (but please see a therapist, the documents are only helpful as an indication of what you could get out of seeking help).

If you live somewhere that has great healthcare, by all means make the most of it. If you live somewhere like Lebanon or the US where healthcare is considered a luxury, please seek out help nonetheless. I know it’s expensive, but the tools it gives you will change your life. Look into the different therapies beforehand so you choose the right path for you.

And remember, we are quite literally all in this together.

Cover Image by Brendan George Ko

I'll be writing a novel at the Faber Academy for the next six months by Nasri Atallah

Today I start a six-month intensive course called “Writing A Novel’ at the Faber Academy in Bloomsbury. This doesn't come out of nowhere. I’ve toyed with the idea of joining a proper writing course for about a decade. I’ve spent hours scrolling through MFA program sites at NYU, Iowa, the University of East Anglia. Every year at about the same time, I’ll spend hours fantasizing about it. And then I’ll talk myself out of it. “It’s not the right time to put life on hold for a Masters”, I’ll tell myself. Or “it’s too expensive”. Or “I can’t move to New York at my age”. I’ll find something, anything, to walk away from the idea.

The truth is, I’ve always been petrified. I have loved reading and writing since I was a child. Given how I grew up, it was inevitable. It’s been the only consistent through-line in my life. And the fear is that a course like this might tell me that writing doesn’t love me back. It could tell me that I'm being delusional in those little moments where I accept this might be something I’m good at. So yeah, petrified.

But, as I creep up on my 35th birthday, I think I know how to transform my own fear and anxiety into something useful. So I applied to this course, after a couple of years of hesitation, I got in and I head to my first workshop today. I will be studying under Richard Skinner, who heads up the program and is the author of The Red Dancer (Faber & Faber), amongst others.

Even though I write regularly (bits and pieces in The Guardian, GQ, Brownbook and my first book Our Man in Beirut), this is the first time I'm being serious about a novel. I've been toying with ideas for a while, but I realize I need structural help and, well, an all-round education. So I've decided to put in the time and money to do that with the most dedicated fiction educators in London. 

I will be taking the course alongside my day-job at Keeward & Bookwitty, and that is how it is designed be taken. Everyone I have spoken to who has been on the course has done it alongside a very demanding job. So I guess the title of this post is misleading: I won’t technically be writing the novel at the Faber Academy, but I'll be writing it on the tube, in planes, in every waking hour where I'm not working on something else. 

I don’t expect to come out of it with a bestseller — although that would be nice. What I do expect to come out with is a solid final draft of a story I care about, and hopefully someone who believes in that same story (an agent, publisher, fellow writer). More than anything, I hope to come away with a community of peers who share the same hopes and fears that I do about taking their writing seriously. And most of all, as SJ Watson put it in his comments on the course that made him a literary star, I want to walk away with what he calls the ‘permission to think of yourself as a writer.’

A bit about the Faber Academy’s track record from the Evening Standard

“The six-month Writing a Novel course run by the Faber Academy, is fast gaining a reputation as UK publishing’s Fame Academy. Since the creative writing school, an offshoot of the world-famous publishing house, opened its doors in 2009, 62 graduates have gone on to secure publishing deals. Its bestselling alumni include SJ Watson (Before I Go to Sleep), Rachel Joyce (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry), Renée Knight (Disclaimer), Laline Paull (The Bees) and Joanna Cannon (The Trouble with Goats and Sheep).

[...] Not even the University of East Anglia’s MA, the UK’s best-established creative writing course since the 1970s (Booker winners Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and Anne Enright, as well as 2017 Baileys winner Naomi Alderman, studied there), or the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the world-celebrated literary launch pad featured in the fourth series of Girls, can claim an equivalent hit rate over the same period. ”

The Bullet List #25 — I Seriously Don't Watch Movies Anymore. At All. Edition by Nasri Atallah

I'll be sharing these recommendation lists on here (again) and on TinyLetter. So you pick which way makes more sense to keep receiving them. If you want to subscribe, have a look here.

YouTube Channels

Binging with Babish: For someone who doesn’t really cook anything that would be universally recognized as edible, I sure do love a good YouTube food channel. Babish brings together my obsession with YouTube junk food shows and pop culture: he makes recipes based on food that shows up in films and TV! Where should you start? I'd take a chunk out of the Ross' Thanksgiving Sandwich (link above) from Friends or nibble at Chef’s Chocolate Salty Balls.

Cold Cuts: the latest project by Lebanon’s very own Mo Abdouni, founder of the irresistibly fun FIMP magazine (they had the best launch events) back in the day. This is his new video platform and his first couple of films — a doc about a Beirut drag queen (link above) and a music video for a German-Yemeni Berlin-based band — have quite rightly been lauded in Elle UK and Reorient.

Books

Raymond Chandler: I’ve been on a bit of a crime fiction binge of late, partly because it is my favorite genre and partly because I’m finally trying to write some myself, and figured I’d go back to one of the stalwarts. I tucked into the Big Sleep, which is excellent, if “problematic” (that word itself is becoming quite problematic). There’s no doubt he’s a master of the genre, but I could have done with a little less slapping of 'hysterical' female protagonists who appear to have their legs poking out of their dresses for most of the plot. It made me realize I should probably tuck into something a bit more contemporary, and potentially from another part of the world.

That’s where Parker Bilal comes in. Bilal is the pseudonym of British-Sudanese author Jamal Mahjoub, and his crime fiction series follows the investigations of Makana, a former Sudanese cop, now a refugee in Cairo, working as a low-rent private investigator. I love what I've read so far.

Reading Lists

Crime Writers of Color: My search for writers who aren’t white and male (again, nothing wrong with being white and male, far from it, it’s just that it doesn’t require much searching to find their output), took me to Twitter. I got a ton of very helpful recommendations there, which I put together in this helpful little reading list.

Documentary

Bowling for Columbine: Somehow my wife, who is a monumental Marilyn Manson fan, had never seen this Micheal Moore joint. So I wanted to show her the scene in which Manson is the most rational and intelligent human being in the film (which isn’t surprising if you know anything about him), and we ended up watching the whole thing, and somehow it seems like something that feels very relevant even today. It even got us into a rewatching a whole bunch of late 90s Louis Theroux documentaries which kind of predicted that America was about to lose its mind (more on that in a bit).

Music

Ryo Fukui - Scenery A regular at the Slowboat jazz bar in Sapporo, he taught himself to play piano aged 22 and released this beauty a mere six years later.

Rapp Snitch Kniches - MF Doom Love this track by prolific and slightly eccentric British rapper of Trinidadian-Zimbabwean origin MF Doom (Daniel Dumile).

The Bunny Tylers - Mothers Make Murderers Hypnotic track by Beirut drone/ambient duo The Bunny Tylers. The band is made up of Charbel Haber (of Scrambled Eggs and solo career fame) and Fadi Tabbal (of The Incompetents, and pretty much the producer behind everyone who plays alternative music in Beirut).

Articles

The Rise and Fall of the Sellout There is a rich tradition of calling artists who chose to not do exactly what you want them to do sellouts, but in this great Slate take (that digs into the terms origins on the left, and in jazz) Nicolay argues the word is on its way out of the musical lexicon.

The Lost Cause Rides Again: Don’t Give HBO’s Confederate the Benefit of the Doubt This impassioned piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates was written a couple of weeks before the deadly actions of white supremacists in Charlottesville. It argues that HBO’s green-lighting of an alternate history series where the South won the Civil War is tone deaf because it doesn't take into account the black contemporary experience in which it's not that clear that South actually lost and alternate histories don't seem so necessary because people of color in the South live that 'what if' every day. In light of the horrors of the past few weeks, it’s tough to see how this show pitches itself now and how it gets made at all.

How America Lost Its Mind Brilliantly written & sprawling essay on the origins of America’s gradual unmooring from reality, going all the way back to the 50s and 60s. If you wonder how millions of American's can watch InfoWars, read this.

TV Shows

Real Detective: Think Discovery ID true crime shows but with well-produced and acted reconstructions, no ad breaks and the most heart-wrenching interviews with real detectives you can think of.

Atypical: I cannot emphasize how brutally emotional, fun, well-written and raw this Netflix family drama about an 18 year old with autism, and the family around him, is. It is also brilliant acted, with star turns from Michael Rapaport, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Keir Gilchrist, Bridgette Lundy-Paine and the hilarious Nik Dodani.

Podcasts

Episode of 99% Invisible Ever wonder who comes up with emojis? Who do they pitch them to and who decides if it makes it onto your phone. Why does the little pile of poop look a bit weirder on Facebook than it does on WhatsApp? Well this predictably excellent episode of 99% Invisible has all the answers.

Instagram Accounts

Anyone who knows me or who follows me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, knows I'm a total sucker for bleak neon-lit landscapes at dusk and old cars in front of empty cafes. Think a mix of a Hopper painting meets Blade Runner meets a muscle car meet-up. Well Patrick Joust from Baltimore and Chris Malloy from Calgary are two of my favorite photographers who manage to capture that beautiful combination.

Films

I think I’m going to drop this section because I really don’t watch films at all anymore. Working on a blog post about why I think that is (spoiler: all the good writers have run off to TV and everyone with a smartphone in a theater is an asshole).

What To Expect When You Follow Me On Social Media by Nasri Atallah

If you're reading this you've probably just followed me or are about to follow me on some form of social media platform. Now, I don't really have a ton of followers or anything, but I've recently seen some of the people I follow write up a post about the kind of stuff you can expect from them, and I find it refreshing and useful. It allows me to declutter my feed or choose to give them more weight in it. 

First thing you should know is that I'm interested in a range of things, I'm a bit of a dilettante, and have some form of ADHD. The core of what interests me revolves around the media & publishing industries, new books/films/music/shows that are out, multiculturalism & identity, and social & political affairs in the two places I call home — Britain and Lebanon. So within one day on Twitter I could post about a new hire at Spotify and what it means for their distribution strategy, a new show on Netflix and how I'm currently bingeing it, my obsession with Arab Noir Fiction, a piece by Riz Ahmed on representation in pop culture and something about Lebanese politics or how Brexit will be a disaster. I know that seems like a pretty broad palette, so consider this a fair warning that some stuff might be annoying,

I'll also post stuff about my own projects and those of my friends. I work at Keeward and Bookwitty on publishing, media and creative ecosystems, so chances are there'll be a healthy dose of self-promotion on that front. I also like to push my friends' projects, specifically absolutely anything my incredibly talented wife does, but also other friends who happen to be in music, film, TV, fashion and so on. I try to make sure it's always a bit relevant. 

I also do some writing whenever I can find time, so I'll share links to articles I've published and probably keep updating you on the progress of my second book (although it has stagnated for years, so now that it's moving forward again I don't want to jinx it by not shutting up about it). I'll also occasionally post shorter pieces that are observations or anecdotes from London, Beirut or the places I'm lucky enough to travel to. 

There, I hope that make sense. And I hope you'll feel this makes you want to connect and exchange ideas. 

See you out there. 

Recommended Video: The Man Who Cultivates Lebanon’s Wild Herb by Nasri Atallah

Absolutely beautiful film by Nay Aoun.

"Mohammad Ali Neimeh's — better known as Abu Kassem — life revolves around Za’atar, Lebanon wild thyme plant. During the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon, he needed to change the way thyme was grown, out of fear he would be shot or shelled trying to get to his plants in the wild. The changes that he implemented have seen huge changes in the way that thyme is now grown in Lebanon. This is his story."

Nay has also produced and directed two other films about the slower, more meditative — and disappearing — side of Lebanon. The Backgammon Artisans (https://vimeo.com/208229697) and Keeping It In The Family: 100 Years of Dibs Kharroub (https://vimeo.com/196710217). 

What I really love about Nay's films is that they don't traffic in Lebanese nostalgia-porn, although the subjects would easily lend themselves to that. They tell human stories, and the truly affecting parts of them are about relationships and resilience and just putting up with life for ages. Truly beautiful.

The Bullet List Now Lives on TinyLetter by Nasri Atallah

I have toyed around with different ways of sharing the bits and pieces of pop culture that I find. I'll often post them on Facebook & Twitter, I tried doing The Bullet Lists here on my site and on Bookwitty. But after subscribing to a few excellent TinyLetter newsletters I realized that would be a good home for the kind of recommendations I make. 

You can find the first three newsletters here, or if you trust me (your shouldn't) you can go straight here to subscribe. 

The Bullet List #16: Nora Ephron, Jon Stewart and Edward Snowden by Nasri Atallah

Just three quick recommendations this week.


First off, if you have missed Jon Stewart — and I'm sure you have — you need to watch this hour and sixteen minutes where he comments on everything from Trump to Clinton in conversation with David Axelrod. He's cool, detached, resigned to some extent but passionate as ever about the subjects. His time on his New Jersey farm has served him well in terms of serenity. He speaks at length about his political activism (which has largely been executed away from the public eye). 

Secondly, check out this half-hour episode of VICE on HBO featuring Edward Snowden talking about the state of the surveillance industry. It is absolutely chilling (even if you've heard him speak about it before in CitizenFour or in interviews such as the one with John Oliver). It'll leave you itching to throw away every electronic device you own. 

And finally, and possibly most importantly, please seek out 'Everything is Copy' a moving portrait of Nora Ephron directed by her son Jacob Bernstein. I'm ashamed to say I didn't know much about her beyond the fact that she basically created the romantic comedy genre at the movies and passed away in 2012. This portrait of Ephron, told through the voices of those who knew her best (friends, family, ex-husbands), reveals a titan of creativity, an aggressively public person who revolutionized the essayistic form and ended her life with a final act of defiance, choosing a very private death. She is absolutely spell-binding to watch in interviews, I don't think I have ever listened to someone as captivating. Please seek out this great documentary. 

The Bullet List #15: A Few LongfoRm Pieces by Nasri Atallah

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

Let me just start by saying that this is a truly phenomenal piece of writing.  Anna Wiener, who has written for The Atlantic, New Republic, The Paris Review and Vice, is a beautiful voice in the current prose landscape. Her n+1 week that has been doing the rounds since it was published online has earned comparisons to Bret Easton Ellis. 'Uncanny Valley' is ostensibly a memoir piece about working in the man-child-on-steroids universe of a Silicon Valley startup but it ends up saying a lot about where we are as a society. If you read one thing this week, make it this. 

Vermilion Daze by Estebraq Ahmad

The Common, published out of Amherst College, has just put out its eleventh issue is and it features a lot of great writing by Arab authors in translation. I picked out a piece by Kuwait's Estabraq Ahmad who is a graduate of the University of Iowa International Writing Program. Her short story collections include The Darkness of the Light, for which she won the Laila al-Othman Prize; Throwing Winter High, for which she was won a state encouragement award; The Things Standing in Room 9; and Give Me 9 Words. She is the producer of the radio show The Cultural Café.

When Wellness Is A Dirty Word by Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

Yes, fitness clubs can be dehumanizing orgies of exhibitionism and self-regard. But intellectual scorn for exercise misunderstands why we work out

"If the thinking classes were once skeptical of these wellness pursuits as woo-woo and anti-intellectual, their marginal status during the 1960s and ’70s at least bestowed a measure of countercultural legitimacy. Then, in the 1980s and ’90s, the language of well-being was commercialized by a booming fascination with fitness and an array of products and experiences to satisfy it. Cue Christopher Lasch’s persuasive admonition that affluent America was devolving into a sinkhole of narcissistic navel-gazing (sculpt those abs!).

Now that luxury mind-body spas and juice bars are familiar totems of gentrification, and Fortune 500 corporations roll out "McMindfulness" seminars and on-site wellness centers, engaging in such practices can feel like an endorsement of a superficial, bourgeois mainstream — a mainstream against which many intellectuals define themselves."

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing (Review by Rachel Syme)

From New York to London to Tokyo, anyone who has lived in a large metropolis can attest to the eerie and inexplicable feeling of experiencing utter loneliness in the midst of some of the most populated and vibrant urban centers in the world. Rachel Syme's great review of Olivia Laing's 'The Lonely City' is an interesting place to start thinking about what is at the origin of this odd feeling. 

Tip for Reading Longform Articles: If you've got a Kindle, get an Instapaper account, put a "Send to Kindle" bookmark in your bookmark bar and every time you're on something that's a bit long-ish to read on a phone or desktop click the bookmark. You'll automatically get the article in your Kindle library in the right format. You'll find yourself reading more stuff in no time.